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I don't want to "bury the lede" here (something that, as someone with no formal training in journalism, I'm wont to do). So for those looking for a quick intro to Wander, the company I examine in this story, here you go: Wander is an iPhone app (iTunes link) that enables cultural exchange. The app matches people from different countries, providing them with a prompts to help them share photos and insights into the landmarks and cultural habitudes of their worlds. It's a pretty cool new app. But that's just part of the story...

YongoPal: English Language Learning via VOIP

I first met Darien Brown about a year ago at a startup event in Seattle. He was working on a really interesting online education startup called YongoPal -- a way to match English language learners in Korea with American college students. He made its business and learning proposition fairly clear to me at the time: students in Korea pay a lot of money to learn to speak English. YongoPal would offer them VOIP conversational opportunities to chat with native English speakers (namely, U.S. university students -- offering those students in turn a way to earn a little extra cash).

Even from its earliest stages, YongoPal had seen more than its fair share of ups and downs. The startup won a business plan competition at the University of Washington, but quickly realized -- and in a fairly bold move, admitted publicly -- that it's first product "sucked." The startup received an investment offer from Dave McClure and joined McClure's inaugural batch of companies in the 500 Startups accelerator program. But there the company learned a lot about design and customer development and tweaked its product substantially again.

YongoPal Pivots

It realized that the real-time, video-based conversation app just wasn't going to work -- while the technology had been vastly improved from the earlier version that had "sucked," there were still several challenges, including most obviously the time-zone difference between Korean and U.S. students.

Right before the 500 Startups Demo Days, the company made a major pivot, scrapping the video element and joining the popular photo-sharing boom. In the case of YongoPal, the mobile photo-sharing experience was still aimed at helping language learners in an informal exchange: snap a photo and chat about it with those learning a language. YongoPal released an iPhone app, prompting blogger Kirsten Winkler to wonder if the startup was "the first post-PC language-learning startup."

The initial response to the YongoPal app was good, Brown admitted, but as the startup analyzed what its early users were actually doing, it came to the realization that the new product had become something other than a language-learning startup. Those using it weren't learning a language, but they were engaged in -- and actually far more interested in -- a cultural exchange.

And so the startup pivoted again.

From YongoPal to Wander

Now the startup is called Wander. It's still focused on a mobile experience -- one that encourages photo-sharing and instant messaging. The app matches two individuals from separate countries (it uses Facebook Connect to pair people based on location and on age). Users are given the opportunity to accept their "guides" to this new country and then, once accepted, the guides are prompted with different photo missions to help spur a conversation: "Take a photo of something that represents your city." "Take a photo of what you ate for lunch."

Brown says that the app has been described as "travel for non-travelers," an intriguing analogy but also an interesting place to pivot to. YongoPal/Wander isn't the only company that's made a move into "travel." The location-based social network Gowalla recently ditched its whole check-in service to become a crowdsourced sort of travel guide, for example. And while I think a lot of folks are genuinely interested in other cities, other countries -- and heck, that's probably the motivation for a lot of language-learning -- the fact of the matter is that most of us don't ever travel anywhere.

Let me restate that because I think it's important: while we often learn a foreign language with travel in mind, we don't always make the trip. (I say this as someone who's spent years studying Italian but has never been to Italy.) That's not an argument against language education; rather, it's an indication that such endeavors are about much more than just the languages themselves. Interest in a foreign language indicates interest in a foreign culture. And as Brown has pivoted his startup now several times, that's the piece that he's honed in on. That's the problem that Wander now is trying to solve: how do you facilitate that, particularly among people who don't (or won't or can't) actually visit another country?

Learning From (Ed-Tech Startup) Failure

There's been a lot of talk lately about ed-tech startups and failure. I wrote something. Avichal Garg wrote something. I think both of our posts were misfires in a lot of ways -- mine because it only examines one startup's angry post-failure rant; Garg's because it sees "the education market" as this monolith in which low price will always trump learning. I think there's a lot more nuance in the industry and in what we mean by "learning" apps.

I think the move from YongoPal to Wander is a good example of that. It isn't simply that the startup failed to provide a useful or low-cost language-learning experience; rather it identified that those potential learners, when they engaged with this particular product, were actually interested in something other than language-learning.

It's been one helluva entrepreneurial lesson for Darien Brown, no doubt. But it's also, I'd argue, a bit of a wake up call for those interested in building learning apps, experiences and opportunities: the learning that we think we're engendering -- as teachers, as developers, and so on -- aren't always the ones that students, consumers, and users engage in. Does that mean we've failed? Or does that mean, we pivot?

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Audrey Watters


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